For San Antonio, June 13 is a special day, the date in 1691 that the Yanaguana River received its new, colonial name, due to a Franciscan priest stopping to say mass at a particularly felicitous spot on the banks.
June 13 also happens to be the birthday of Xavier de Richemont, the Parisian artist and self-described “video painter” behind San Antonio: The Saga, an audiovisual spectacular capsule history of the city that is projected four nights per week onto the facade of San Fernando Cathedral.
This week, de Richemont is visiting San Antonio for a special birthday celebration on Main Plaza, Friday evening, June 15, from 6-9 p.m., hosted by the Main Plaza Conservancy, sponsor of the video installation.
Members of the public are welcome to join the birthday party, including any of the hundreds of locals, conventioneers, tourists, and city denizens who have regularly crowded the plaza to witness de Richemont’s work.
In 2014, four years ahead of the city’s Tricentennial celebrations, San Antonio: The Saga prefigured the focus on local history, in all its ethnic, political, and circumstantial complexity. A timespan from prehistory to the current decade is compressed into a 24-minute, raucous montage, projected onto the cathedral that stands at the original center of the Spanish colonial village founded 300 years ago.
Using a deft combination of photographic imagery and abstracted symbols, The Saga begins with a sharp clap of thunder and ensuing rainstorm. Imagery of fire and ancient petroglyphs emerge, reminding us that history begins far earlier than 300 years ago, with the basic elements that allowed early settlement in the area.
Many trivia nights could be fueled by the sheer number of facts, historical figures, national flags, songs, foodstuffs, and ethnic symbols contained in the swirling video montage, which is a testament to the two years of local research de Richemont conducted prior to constructing the video.
Among the patterns, textures, and colors of the video, the number of national flags alone will overwhelm anyone even well-versed in international relations. All represent some part in the ethnic makeup of San Antonio, de Richemont said.
“The [immigrant] population were from France, Ireland, Germany, Dutch, Korean, Chinese, Japan, from all over the world,” he said, “and this was in 1840, 1850,” before other waves of migration brought Swedish, Polish, British, Central and South American, and Eastern European people.
“You were Mexican here. Texas was not part of the U.S. until Santa Anna lost,” de Richemont said. “And before being Mexican, it was Spanish, and before being Spanish it was Indian,” he said, pointing out the complexity he tried to capture in the color, sound, and symbology of The Saga narrative.
One perhaps less-well known detail of Texas history that de Richemont uncovered was the discovery of oil in 1901, represented by derricks silhouetted on the cathedral’s stone surfaces. Liquid oil seeps in from the sides, gradually transforming a plain, scaffold-like rendering of the church into a baroque, gilded version evincing the riches that Texas’s prime natural resource would deliver.
Historical figures that have made appearances in recent parades, festivals, art installations, and exhibitions also appear, like the chili queens, Canarian and Franciscan founders of the original Presidio, and Battle of the Alamo veterans and villains. Lesser-known figures like Comanche Chief Quanah Parker and Missions founder Father Antonio Margil de Jesús are highlighted.
Audio is as important as video in the 24-minute feast of sight and sound. Viewers can expect to hear Comanche drums, a lonely blues dobro, and the lesser-known 1965 Donovan version of “Remember The Alamo,” as well as the voice of Tish Hinojosa, who performed for the first anniversary of The Saga in 2015. The Allman Brothers, a personal favorite of the artist, also make an audio appearance in the montage.
Night after night, rain or shine, hundreds of visitors pack the plaza for the evening viewings, said Jane Pauley-Flores, executive director of the Main Plaza Conservancy.
She sees something new every time she watches The Saga, she said. On Tuesday, sitting under a tent selling copies of the commemorative book accompanying the artwork, Pauley-Flores spotted gargoyles from the Drury Hotel building amidst the cascade of imagery.
De Richemont’s attention to history and detail made his work a perfect fit for the cathedral project, said William “Bill” Scanlan Jr., board chair of the Main Plaza Conservancy.
“It’s the artistry and the vision of Xavier de Richemont, that he really gets involved in the history of his topic,” Scanlan said.
For example, de Richemont is currently at work on a similar video art installation in a city near Liège, in his home country of France, in which the industrial history of the city will play out in images, music, and symbols related to the wool industry that undergirds the community’s development over 500 years.
A world tour of de Richemont’s video installations would take a traveler to Mexico, where Scanlan’s son William Scanlan III first saw his work, and to locations throughout Europe, and to India, where several works have been projected and are in the planning stages, de Richemont said.
San Antonio will enjoy The Saga until at least 2024, its 10-year agreement having been sealed by Scanlan and the Main Plaza Conservancy with the help of Father David Garcia, “San Antonio’s most feared fundraiser,” as Scanlan lightheartedly called him.
The Friday celebration of de Richemont’s 59th birthday, and the fourth anniversary of San Antonio: The Saga, is 6-9 p.m. in Main Plaza. The richly visual book containing still images of the various video “slides” that comprise The Saga will be available for $39.99 from the Main Plaza Conservancy.